Ronald Acuña Jr. excelling in return from torn ACL

Like everything else he does on a baseball field, Ronald Acuña Jr. makes his return from a cruciate ligament tear in his right knee look effortless, but that doesn’t make his comeback any less incredible.

It’s been less than a year since Acuña suffered his injury on July 10, 2021, missing the rest of the 2021 season and the Braves’ run to a World Series title, but the 24-year-old is already back on Superstar -level and he’s helped Atlanta get back on track after a slow start.

Acuña has recorded a .368/.457/.737 slash with four home runs during Atlanta’s current 11-game winning streak. He had a relatively quiet game on Sunday, going 0-2 with two walks, but the full Acuña experience showed the day before when he went home to lead from the bottom of the first inning and later from first base at Dansby Swanson’s, Bloop hit a single shot into right field.

“I don’t know I’ve seen anyone like that in my time, and I’ve seen a lot of Hall of Famers and some who aren’t Hall of Famers knock on the door where you just go. Wow,'” said Braves manager Brian Snitker after the team’s 10th straight win. “This boy is almost on another level with what he can do.”

Snitker wasn’t the only one to express his admiration for the dynamic outfielder on Saturday. NBA superstar LeBron James also took notice after Acuña mimicked James’ signature chalk-throwing ritual after his homer. “Ayyee!! Man I love this kid,” James tweeted in response to Acuña’s impersonation.

Acuña’s stat line is a good indicator of the impact he’s had so far, as he averaged .311s, hit six homers, 11 steals and .943 OPS in his first 32 games. He had 1.5 baseball reference wins over substitutes on Sunday.

But it’s not just about the numbers. Amazingly, all of the elements that made Acuña so special before his injury have returned as if he had never been away. (All stats below are through Saturday.)

Few baseball players can hit the ball as hard as Acuña, and it wasn’t long before the outfielder displayed that rare trait after returning April 28 away from Mets right-hander Carlos Carrasco — the fourth-hardest hit of his career and one the hardest-hit balls in MLB this season.

While an event’s sample size doesn’t usually tell you much about a player, maximum exit velocity can be an important tool for evaluating performance. To put it simply, racquets don’t reach exit speeds of 186.6 km/h. It takes real skill to hit a ball that hard.

Acuña also performs well with a larger sample size. Since his debut in 2018, he has consistently ranked among the best in MLB for hard hit rate, the percentage of balls hit with an exit speed in excess of 150 km/h; and running speed, balls hit with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, which usually results in extra base hits and homers.

This season, his 52.4% batting average is in the 95th percentile, while his 18.3% barreling rate is in the 98th percentile. His expected slugging percentage, based on quality of contact and strikeouts, is .620, the highest of his career and seventh-best in the majors this season.

Another reason Acuña is such a dangerous hitter is that he rarely extends the zone. Since 2018, MLB hitters have chased an average of 28% of the courts they’ve seen outside the hitting zone, but Acuña’s career chase rate is 22.8%. This season? It’s 22.7%, which is in the 83rd percentile.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Acuña is one passive Bat. He is aggressive in certain situations, as evidenced by his swing rates in first place (34.3%) and in zone places (69.3%), both of which are well above average. And when he decides to let go, good things usually happen.

Statcast’s swing/take number is a counting statistic that assigns a run value to each pitch based on its result (ball, strike, home run, etc.). Despite missing most of April, Acuña’s swing/take number this season is +11, which ranks 27th-best in MLB. Among +10+ hitters, only Josh Naylor and Tim Anderson have seen fewer pitches than Acuña.

We know how much damage Acuña can do when he hits the ball, but contact, in terms of how often he gets the stick on the ball, has always been his weakest ability and that hasn’t changed in 2022. His breath rate (misses/swings) and strikeout rate are both in the 19th percentile.

However, both numbers have been trending down lately, so they’re at least approaching his career numbers (27.8% breath rate, 25.9% K-rate).

Through May 31, Acuna whistled 31.5% of his swings and hit 32.3% of his plate appearances. As of June 1st, his breath rate is 27.3% and his K rate is 14.3%.

Acuña has been one of MLB’s biggest top-of-the-order threats since the Braves made him their regular leadoff hitter in July of his rookie year. In fact, only George Springer has had more leading homers (27) than Acuña (25) since July 20, 2018, Acuña’s first career game, knocked down from 1st in the standings.

Acuña has continued to own the first innings this year, averaging .448 and 1.225 OPS in 30 first-inning plate appearances while leading on each of his starts.

Someone coming back from a serious knee injury would be expected to rest the bases, at least initially, but not Acuña. He stole two bases in his first game back and 11 pockets in 14 attempts in his first 31 games.

Acuña’s average sprint speed isn’t quite back yet – he’s at 28.2 ft/sec after averaging 29.5 ft/sec in 2018-21 – but that could just be because he chose not to hit full speed to run unless he really has to.

Top speed is still there, as evidenced by its six bolts, competitive runs with a sprint speed of 30 ft/sec or faster. One of his bolts came around the bases in his sprint to score from the start on Swanson’s single on Saturday when he hit 30.2 feet/second in the game.

Acuña’s average sprint speed is likely to continue to increase as he moves further from what happened to be an injury less than a year ago.

And remember, he’s only 24 so there’s room to improve for the rest of his game as well. Considering how quickly he’s recovered from such a serious injury, maybe we should count on that.

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